Russia turns down Kyrgyz call for help as toll rises

Uzbek
Ethnic riots wracked southern Kyrgyzstan on Saturday, forcing thousands of Uzbeks to flee as their homes were torched by roving mobs of Kyrgyz men. The interim government begged Russia for troops to stop the violence, but the Kremlin offered only humanitarian assistance.

At least 75 people were reported killed and nearly 1,000 wounded in the violence spreading across the impoverished Central Asian nation that hosts both US and Russian air bases.

Much of its second-largest city, Osh, was on fire on Saturday and the sky overhead was black with smoke. Gangs of young Kyrgyz men armed with firearms and metal bars marched on minority Uzbek neighbourhoods and set homes on fire. Stores were looted and the city was running out of food.

"It's a real war," said local leader Omurbek Suvanaliyev. "Everything is burning, and bodies are lying on the streets."

Those driven from their homes rushed toward the border with Uzbekistan, and a reporter saw children being trampled to death in the stampede. Crowds of women and children made bridges out of planks and ladders to cross the border.

Interim President Roza Otunbayeva acknowledged that her government has lost control over Osh, a city of 250,000, even though it sent troops, armour and helicopters to quell the riots. Violence spread to the nearby city of Jalal-Abad later on Saturday.

"The situation in the Osh region has spun out of control," Otunbayeva told reporters. "Attempts to establish a dialogue have failed, and fighting and rampages are continuing. We need outside forces to quell confrontation."

Otunbayeva asked Russia early on Saturday to send in troops, but the Kremlin said it would not meddle into Kyrgyzstan's internal conflict.

"It's a domestic conflict, and Russia now doesn't see conditions for taking part in its settlement," Kremlin spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said in Moscow. She added that Russia will discuss with other members of a security pact of ex-Soviet nations about the possibility of sending a joint peacekeeping force to Kyrgyzstan. Timakova said Russia would send a plane to Kyrgyzstan to deliver humanitarian supplies and help evacuate victims of the violence.

Interim government spokesman Farid Niyazov refused to comment on whether the country would turn to the US for military help after Russia had refused. "Russia is our main strategic partner," he said.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he was unaware of any requests for help by Kyrgyzstan.

The riots are the worst violence since former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled in a bloody uprising in April and fled the country. Otunbayeva blamed Bakiyev's family for instigating the unrest in Osh, saying they aimed to derail the constitutional referendum.

The official toll rose on Saturday to at least 75 people dead and 977 wounded in both Osh and Jalal-Abad, the Health Ministry said. In mainly Uzbek areas on the edge of Osh, residents painted the letters "SOS" on the road in a futile bid for help from the violence that began late on Thursday.

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